"The Duchess", written by Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen and directed by Saul Dibb, is perhaps most interesting because Georgaina was an ancestor of Princess Diana, and their lives seem to have strange parallels.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, British period films are "The Dark Knight" of the independent/ art house theater world. Every year, a small handful of these films are released and they create sold out shows and lines at these smaller theaters, the theaters that bring us films from people like Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh. These films inject an infusion of cash paying patrons into their seats and they hope the audience will carry over to the next film playing on the same screen. Thankfully, most of these films are at least good, and many are terrific examples of filmmaking. This year, we have seen "Brideshead Revisited", a very good take on the well-known book by Evelyn Waugh. Of course, if the British period piece is also based on a book by Jane Austen, so much the better, but it is difficult to keep remaking the same films over and over again. But as difficult as this may seem to be, they do keep trying.
"The Duchess" is very good and Knightley helps to paint a picture of this woman's loves and frustrations, her struggle to maintain her marriage, and her struggle to maintain her desires when she realizes the marriage won't last.
On BBC America, one of the news programs they carry from Britain recently ran a story debating whether Knightley was basing her portrayal of Georgaina on Princess Diana. I don't know enough about Diana to be able to draw the parallels, but the film opens with a title card reading "The Spencer Estate" and the year. When this appeared, a woman in the audience stated "Princess Diana" in a voice of awe. So, maybe there is something to that story.
Georgaina (Knightley) is a happy go lucky young lady, content to flirt with the young men hanging around her estate, leading betting games with the other young ladies about which of the men will win a race. One of the men vying for the attention of the females is Charles Gray (Cooper). Georgaina flirts with him until her mother summons her. Mom (Rampling) has just negotiated her daughter's marriage to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes), who will pay a reward when his new bride delivers a male heir. But Georgaina is a romantic and believes her new husband is the catch of all catches and theirs will be a fairytale romance. But she quickly learns things will not be as she imagined.
Despite the fact Knightley is way, way too skinny to play a lady of this era, she almost seems to transport herself to this era, inhabiting the character, making Georgaina's loves, pains and heartaches real and believable. When Lady Spencer initially announces to her daughter that she will be marrying the Duke, we see all of the young lady's excitement, all of the fairy tales racing through her mind, as she quickly reviews them to make sure her marriage will set the new standard. When she becomes the Duchess, she is nervous about consummating the marriage, but the Duke is experienced and instructs her in how to meet his needs. But as Georgaina runs back to her mother, to make sure she did everything right, we see a look of resignation fall on Georgaina's face. Is that all there is to making love with your husband. Knightley shows us the Duchess' disappointment now that she has learned the truth about what a wife must do. And later, when she realizes her husband is having an affair with her friend, Bess, and doing little to hide it, she is unable to hide her disgust that she is unable to have an affair with the love of her life, Charles Gray. It is an interesting, complex performance and Knightley makes it seem more effortless than most.
Ralph Fiennes plays the Duke of Devonshire, a man who is awkward at best, and determined to sire a male heir who can inherit his title when he dies. So he arranges to marry Georgaina, a woman he doesn't have any affection for, but who can sire his heir. When she gives birth to a daughter, his eye starts to wander. But his eye has wandered before and Georgaina readily takes in his illegitimate daughter as one of his own. Fiennes walks a tightrope with this performance. On the one hand, the Duke is aloof and unaware of much that surrounds him. When he is hosting a dinner for his political party, he abruptly leaves the table causing Georgaina to look for him. When she tracks him down, in his bedroom, he says, in a rather petulant, child-like way, "I'm tired" causing her to return and continue as hostess, entertaining his political cronies. But the Duke is also well aware of the privilege his title affords him and has many affairs. When he becomes attracted to Bess, she moves into the house and shares a place at their dining room table, as a second wife. And when Georgaina makes a plea for her happiness- why can't she have an affair when her husband is openly carrying on? - He denies her request with threats and everyone seems to accept that he is having an affair because he can. If she has an affair, it would cause a scandal.
Hayley Atwell, last seen in "Brideshead Revisited" and "Cassandra's Dream" is good as Bess. Georgaina initially meets Bess at a party in Bath and learns that Bess's husband has banned her from their house, never to see their children again. Georgaina takes pity on her new friend and takes her home, talking the Duke into letting her live with them. Soon, Bess and the Duke are having an affair, but Bess continues to try to influence the Duke into helping Georgaina. She also pulls strings in the background to allow Georgaina some measure of happiness.
Charlotte Rampling plays Lady Spencer, a woman who arranges for her daughter's marriage to the Duke, because it would be a good thing for everyone involved. Love will come later. Love is unimportant in such matters. It is a cold, hard performance but perfectly portrays the type of character this woman must have been.
Dominic Cooper plays Charles Gray, the young, attractive, aspiring politician who falls in love with Georgaina. His job is to be sexy, romantic and alluring and he fits the bill, causing Georgaina to risk everything for a chance at love with him.
"The Duchess" is a handsomely made film; everything appears to be very authentic in both place and costume, adding an air of grandeur to the film. The film isn't cutting edge, but that isn't what the audience for such a film wants. "The Duchess" needs to tell a story of romance, doomed or otherwise. It is difficult to do this in any way that might be considered cutting edge and still deliver to the audience in question. I'm glad the filmmakers stuck to a fairly straightforward narrative. If they had employed some cutting edge techniques and they turned out to be bad, we might have been watching "Marie Antoinette 2" instead of "The Duchess".